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Monday, 21 September 2020

An E-Ink tablet optimised for both reading and writing

The problem with note-taking E-Ink devices is that they are optimised either for note-taking or e-reading. Remarkable 2 comes closest to reproducing digitally the pen on paper feel. The screen is slightly recessed, so you get the feeling of directly writing on the surface of the screen. It also uses a CANVAS display that Remarkable developed with E-Ink - the display adds extra surface friction and has a 21ms latency when writing. 

Remarkable claim their device is a 'paper tablet' rather than an e-reader. Nevertheless, Remarkable also highlights that the 'paper tablet' is equally made for reading too:

In our endeavour of creating a tablet for reading, writing and sketching, we have tried almost all types of tablets and display technologies. 

It is here - the reading side - that Remarkable falls short as the e-reader software misses basic features that significantly cripples its use. 

On the other hand, Onyx Boox has the best e-reading software. What is lacking with Onyx Boox e-readers is its note-taking capabilities. The screen of Boox's e-readers, like other e-readers, has a smooth finish that feels unnatural when writing and feels closer to writing on a tablet screen. Added to the slick glass surface, in the case of both the Note 2 and Nova 2, there is a slight gap between the glass layer and E-Ink display. 

Despite being inferior to Remarkable, Onyx Boox's e-readers are still usable for note-taking. It just doesn't have the paper feel and latency that you get with the Remarkable 2. Still, the software for note-taking is capable, and you don't get significant trade-offs between reading and writing (Remarkable 1 and 2 are optimised for note-taking but have significant reading drawbacks).

What is needed is a device that is optimised for both note-taking and reading. I think Remarkable is closest to getting it done as the Remarkable 2's limitations are software related.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Another 'disruptive' e-paper solution?

Once again, we hear of a new e-paper solution. This time TCL has announced the release of a new 'disruptive' e-paper technology - termed as NXTPAPER - that is 65% more energy-efficient than regular LCD displays. TCL was also vague stating new tablet devices will be released "soon" using an NXTPAPER screen.

NXTPAPER is a colour reflective LCD technology that works without a backlight. TCL also claim this technology is an eye-health innovation with eleven eye health-related patents registered. We've seen reflective LCD screens before - the Hisense Q5 uses a monochrome version - so it is not clear how innovative NXTPAPER is. 

Unfortunately, promising e-paper technologies in the past failed. In a technology industry that is dominated by smartphones - sometimes with gimmicky upgrades - e-paper solutions are a genuinely needed innovation. For example, the One Laptop per Child initiative released educational laptops that utilised Pixel Qi screen technology. Pixel Qi was a company that produced energy-efficient and sunlight-readable screens. The screen operated in dual-mode in which you could completely turn off the backlight for better outdoor readability. 

It is justifiable to be sceptical if we will see a device released with NXTPAPER technology. We've had e-paper technologies in the past that promised a lot but disappeared, e.g. Mirasol and Liquavista. More recently, CLEARink announced partnerships to produce devices using their reflective low-power displays targetted at education, but nothing has been released. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Why doesn't Kobo implement Tolino's cloud hosting service?

Rakuten owns both Kobo and Tolino. Tolino, since being acquired by Rakuten, sells e-readers that are identical in terms of hardware with Kobo. Thus, for example, Tolino Vision 5 matches the Kobo Libra H20 and Tolino Epos 2 the Kobo Forma. Software, however, differs between Kobo and Tolino.

One software aspect that Tolino excels at is support for wireless management of e-book libraries and the syncing between devices of personal documents. The Tolino Cloud allows the user to upload e-books to be synced between a Tolino e-reader and application. It is also possible to put e-books and PDF documents into categories and have the categories synced too. It is a great feature that even exceeds the support that Amazon offers for personal documents. 

I don't know why Kobo doesn't implement the Tolino cloud feature - together with public library support the extensive support of wireless management of e-book libraries would significantly enhance the reading experience.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Remarkable 2: Good for note-taking but not for e-books and PDF documents?

It seems the e-book and PDF support is mediocre on the Remarkable 2. For a note-taking e-reader poor e-book and PDF support is unforgivable. It's a pity as, compared to Onyx Boox e-readers, Remarkable 2 is better designed, built and optimised for note-taking. I think one reason Onyx Boox inflates the price of its devices, other than there is a small number of vendors that sell note-taking e-readers, is their advanced and stable software features for e-books and PDF documents. Boyue has potential - especially as their devices have a similar performance and cost less - but they need to re-design their developmental software. 

The question is if the better software on Onyx's devices makes up for the sizeable price difference in comparison to Boyue. I would answer, for the more experienced user, that it is better getting a Boyue e-reader. Boyue might not have the best software, but there are enough third-party applications that can meet most needs. Further, despite Boyue's software being buggy, it is still mostly usable and most key features are supported, e.g. contrast adjustment, highlighting text and typing annotations.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

The Kobo Libra H20 is the best value e-reader

Previously, I posted on why the Kindle Paperwhite is the best 6-inches e-reader. In this post, I'll justify why the Kobo Libra H20 is not just the best choice for a 7-inches e-reader but also the best value e-reader. In the 7-inches size, the comparison is between the Kindle Oasis 3 and the Kobo Libra H20. Android e-readers mainly exist in the 7.8-inches and 10.3-inches sizes, so there are limited options to include. Onyx Boox previously released a 6.8-inches e-reader - the Onyx Boox T68 Plus - but the model is no longer supported. 

Three main reasons make Libra H20 an attractive proposition:
  1. For the £150 price, you get premium features. To compare, the 8GB model of the Kindle Oasis 3 costs £230. Despite the significant price difference, you get similar hardware features - water-proofing, auto-rotation, buttons, warm lighting and a larger 7-inches screen. Yes, the Oasis has a metallic back, but for many, this is a negative as it is more prone to damage in comparison to the Libra's hardened plastic. The metallic back is also cold to the hand in lower temperatures.
  2. The Libra H20, like other Kobo e-readers, is open to installing third-party add-ons. Thus, it is possible to not only install KOReader but also several hacks and utilities.
  3. I can't repeat it enough: the ability to borrow public library e-books and read them on a Kobo is a big deal. Public library support of e-book borrowing is still developing and should get better. 
Overall, the Libra H20, for its price, is the best value e-reader. The 7-inches size is ideal for e-books and costs only £30 more than the Paperwhite. In real-world usage, Kobo didn't cut any corners to get the price down. It is essentially a smaller version of the Kobo Forma but without the Mobius screen technology.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Capable budget Android tablets

It is a misconception that Android tablets are on the way out. Yes, some prominent vendors have exited the market - e.g., Acer and Asus - but others are now producing a variety of tablets that meet the needs of different types of users. Specifically, at the lower end, we are seeing capable tablets at prices that were unfathomable a few years ago. With the absence of value - low-cost tablets being generally terrible at the time - Amazon decided to take the budget route in late 2015. Other vendors, it appears, noticed the success of Amazon's strategy and are now releasing capable Android devices at similar prices. 

Currently, in the 8-inches budget category, there is the Samsung Tab A 8.0, Lenovo M8, Lenovo M8 FHD and Huawei Mediapad M5 Lite 8. There is also the Lenovo Smart Tab M8 - in terms of hardware it is near identical to the regular M8, but it also supports a smart dock station that enables Google's smart assistant. I've used the Lenovo Smart Tab M8 and found the smart assistance experience unsatisfactory. The tablet doesn't use the modified Google Cast that Google uses on its smart devices with a display - instead, after a period of activity, it enables Google Assistant's Ambient Mode.

In 10-inches there is the Huawei Matepad, Huawei Mediapad T5, Huawei Mediapad M5 Lite, Samsung Tab A 10.0, Lenovo Tab M10 FHD Plus and Lenovo Smart Tab M10 FHD Plus. Similar to the smaller Tab M8/Smart Tab M8, the Smart Tab M10 FHD supports a charging dock that enables Google Ambient Mode. There are also Android Alexa-enabled smart tablets like the Lenovo Smart Tab P10 - the Alexa smart assistant on the P10 is similar to the feature on Fire tablets that offers a closer experience to Amazon's smart assistant speakers with a display.

Lenovo, as in other areas, is leading innovation and is willing to try out different products. Other than producing tablets with and without smart docks, it also recently released the Lenovo Chromebook Duet. The Chromebook Duet is a tablet - bundled with a keyboard - that supports USI stylus input and runs on Chrome OS. 

Most of the tablets noted above are preferable to Amazon's Fire Tablets. However, when Amazon heavily discounts its tablets, they are an unbeatable value. Either way, Amazon Fire tablets are capable consumption devices, and the Fire HD 10 is powerful enough to be used for some forms of productivity too. 

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Review of the Fire HD 8 Plus

I intentionally chose to review the Fire HD 8 Plus, to see if its extra cost, in comparison to the regular Fire HD 8, makes it a better choice. Amazon markets its tablets as budget content consumption devices. In this review, I'll argue that the HD 8 Plus's extra features do not add, considering the use case of Fire tablets, anything significant and that the Fire HD 8 is the better option. 

Positives

Most of what I'll consider as positives, in this section, also apply to the Fire HD 8. The previous generation of the Fire HD 8 was frustratingly slow - often the user experienced lag and delays when doing simple tasks, e.g. launching apps, opening e-books and browsing media-rich websites. The Fire HD 8 Plus is noticeably better, but the sluggishness is still there. For media streaming, reading e-books, navigating menus performance is adequate. However, try loading and browsing a media-rich website, and you begin to notice significant slowdowns. 

Considering Fire OS - an operating system designed around Amazon services - the Fire HD 8 Plus's extra RAM, in comparison to the Fire HD 8, is helpful but does not significantly affect the user experience. The Fire HD 10 does not have the 3GB RAM but still performs well. I would instead Amazon bumped the processor performance in the Plus model than add memory.

The Fire HD 8 Plus also exclusively supports wireless charging. This feature makes it is possible to dock the tablet using a charging dock accessory to generate Alexa show mode and convert the tablet into a smart assistant. The smart device experience is compromised as the speakers and microphone are weak. The audio problem can be remedied can with a Bluetooth speaker but the microphone problem is permanent. The microphone does pick-up voice commands but can suffer when the user is further away or when there is even moderate background noise. Another positive of the dock is fast charging - the dock is capable of 10W high-speed wireless charging.

Battery life is fantastic. The advertised up to "12 hours" is accurate - the Fire HD 8 Plus easily gets more than a full day of mixed usage. In standby mode, the Fire HD 8 Plus conserves energy and lasts days with little or no usage. In previous generations, Amazon Fire tablets tended to drain quicker - possibly due to Alexa being enabled - but the issue has now been resolved.  

Amazon also changed the Fire HD 8 and Fire HD 8 Plus's aspect ratio. Both tablets have identical dimensions that are now closer to the iPad Mini. This means the tablet is wider, which makes it more suitable for reading. 

Negatives

Out of the box, Fire tablets don't support the Google Play Store. More experienced users will find it relatively straightforward to sideload and install Google Play. However, for the general user, it could be challenging to identify the required applications that need to be installed to get Google Play working. There are minor issues too with the lack of native Google Play support, e.g. updating apps can cause conflicts when the same application exists in the Fire OS and Google Play stores.

The biggest negative is the screen. The Fire HD 8 Plus has the same screen as the Fire HD 8, and this means no lamination and oleophobic coating. The screen is also very reflective even indoors - I would say darker video scenes are almost unwatchable due to the glare. An anti-glare screen protector is a must to remedy fingerprint smudges and the reflective screen.

Of course, there are the expected negatives that are understandable considering the Fire HD 8 Plus is an entry-level tablet. The speakers are weak, performance is adequate at best, the front camera just works, and the screen resolution is passable. Yet none of these negatives severely impacts the use case of this tablet as a content consumption device.

Other budget options

At the £110 full retail price, the Fire HD 8 Plus is now closer to 8-inches budget tablets offered by other vendors. Alternatives include the Huawei MatePad T8, Lenovo Tab M8 and Samsung Tab A 8.0. All these devices, at a similar price, have better cameras, screens and build quality. However, the Fire HD 8 Plus, in comparison to other tablets in this category, has an extra GB RAM. It also should be noted, in contrast to the Fire HD 8 Plus, that Huawei and Lenovo's smaller budget tablets don't support USB-C charging.

One big plus for the Fire HD 8 Plus is its support for HD streaming in both Netflix and Prime Video. Both Samsung and Huawei support this feature, but surprisingly Lenovo does not. Lenovo may remedy this problem with a software update. 

Overall, as is the case with the Fire HD 10, the Fire HD 8 Plus is good value when discounted by Amazon. At full retail price, the better option would be going for one of the Android tablets offered by other vendors.

Conclusion

Considering the use case of Fire tablets, the HD 8 Plus's extra RAM and wireless charging don't substantially improve the user experience. Consequently, it makes better sense to opt for the regular Fire HD 8 model. If Amazon released the tablet with two GB RAM but slightly improved the processor and screen then the Fire HD 8 Plus would justify its place in Amazon's tablet line-up. 

However, the Fire HD 8 Plus's support for wireless charging is unique in the budget tablet category. It also offers useful use cases too. The charging dock accessory turns the tablet into a permanent smart speaker with a screen that can be used, for example, in the kitchen to watch cooking instructional videos or hands-free streaming of radio, podcasts, music and TV shows. Of course, it is possible to use a tablet stand and use voice command to turn on show mode, but this is less convenient than using the charging dock.